Archaeology and the Politics of the Past
This seminar explores the use of the past as a symbolic resource by modern communities and the social situation and responsibilities of archaeologists in this process. This is an issue of fundamental importance to the historical development and definition of archaeology as well as to current debates about the nature and direction of archaeological practice, theory, and epistemology. It is also an issue of major significance to the societies in which archaeologists operate and of which archaeology constitutes a field of knowledge production with far-reaching, and often unintended, consequences.
After a discussion of basic concepts and goals, the course begins by first trying to situate the particular problems of archaeological research within broader discussions of the sociology, history, and philosophy of science (or "science studies") and the philosophy of history. Readings are designed to furnish the analytical tools necessary to examine questions concerning the ways in which archaeological practice (including the selection of appropriate research questions, the evaluation of knowledge claims, and funding for research and for the preservation of archaeological sites) is affected by the institutional landscape of archaeology and the socio-political context of its disciplinary formation. Case studies from a variety of contexts are then used to show how archaeology has been involved in the politically charged construction of ethnic and regional identities and nationalist and colonialist mythologies in modern history, as well as in the commoditization and consumption of “heritage” within the current context of globalization and the expansion of neo-liberal capitalism. Current debates about the authority of competing interpretations of archaeological evidence, the right to control public representations of the past, and the contested ownership of archaeological materials and sites are also discussed.
Obviously, the seminar grapples with delicate and important epistemological, metaphysical, and ethical issues that all archaeologists must ultimately address. However, it is a basic contention of the course that such issues cannot be resolved simply by recourse to philosophical reflection and argumentation. Rather, archaeology must be understood not as a set of abstract theoretical propositions, but as a practice (or set of practices) embedded in particular socio-cultural contexts requiring careful historical and sociological analysis. As the principal authoritative conduit to the distant past, it is crucial that archaeologists develop a critical reflexive awareness of their own situation and their responsibilities in investigating and presenting the past in the midst of rival appeals to its use in authenticating modern collective identities and to its potential marketability. This means that it is important to look simultaneously inward, trying to understand how the broader socio-political context of the discipline affects archaeological practice and knowledge production, and to look outward, trying to comprehend the effects of disciplinary practices on society at large.